The debate about whether trans athletes should compete based on their biological sex or felt gender is not new.
In July 2021, in our Bioethics Observatory, we extensively analyzed the controversy that arose at the Tokyo Olympics when an athlete of biological male sex competed as a “transsexual woman” in the female competition, who had undergone a process of transition of genre.
It was Laurel Hubbard, a weightlifting athlete who qualified for the Olympics representing New Zealand. This decision presented objective bioethical problems, given that this transsexual athlete could have had biological advantages (such as greater musculature or high levels of testosterone) compared to the women who competed against her, which could have meant a significant superiority in the competition.
After a long controversy, the New Zealander became the first openly transgender athlete to compete in an Olympic Games in a gender category other than that determined by her biological sex, although after a failed attempt after lifting 120 kg and two failed efforts with 125 kg in the snatch, she was out of the competition.
Now a new case analogous to the previous one comes to the fore, that of the transsexual athlete Lia Thomas (Will Thomas until 2019), a man according to his biological sex who feels like a woman and who, after competing in swimming in the men’s category without winning, has just beaten two recent Olympic runners-up, Erica Sullivan and Emma Weyant, in the women’s category in the 500 yards -about 450 meters- of the university finals in the United States.
In 2016, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) established that the only condition for this type of athlete, biologically male but who feel like a woman, to be able to compete in the female category is that their testosterone level be less than 10 nanograms per milliliter of blood. , but there is a division of opinions on the matter and the discomfort in the sports world is increasing when it is considered that these athletes compete with a significant superiority in competitions.
Divided opinion in the US
Just these days, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb has announced that he will join at least 11 other Republican-led states in banning biologically male transgender women and girls from participating in school sports that match their female gender identity.
The bill’s Republican sponsors said there is a need to protect the integrity of women’s sports and opportunities for girls to earn college athletic scholarships, but nonetheless they noted there have been no cases of girls being outclassed by transgender athletes in the state.
Holcomb recently stated that he had not yet made a decision on the bill, although he strongly agrees that “boys should play boys’ sports and girls should play girls’ sports,” referring to biological sex and not felt gender.
The governor also pointed to the Indiana High School Athletic Association, which already has a policy covering transgender students, stating that no “transgender girl” has ever applied to play on a women’s team.
At the same time, in the state of Utah, trans students have been prohibited from participating in school sports aligned with their gender identity since last Friday, March 25; and in February, the governor of the state of South Dakota, Kristi Noem, signed a similar law that prohibits the participation of trans athletes in female sports in the state’s educational centers. Noem stated that “girls will always have the opportunity to play in girls sports in South Dakota and have an opportunity for a level playing field, for fairness, that gives them the chance to experience success”.
The establishment of a threshold in the plasmatic levels of testosterone as the sole criterion to allow or not sports participation in categories separated by sex, is shown to be a totally insufficient measure and, in some cases, counterproductive.
The physiological development of a man, conditioned by his genetic imprint and the hormones that he codifies, is openly different from that of a woman. This includes, in addition to genetic and endocrine differences, such as their testosterone levels, others that affect the immune system, brain configuration, anatomical structure, bone, and metabolic processes, among others, that confer advantages to men and women in different áreas. This has meant that, from the beginning, certain competitions must be held separately grouping men and women to try to offer equal opportunities according to the possibilities offered by sexual nature.
The pernicious influence of gender ideology that seeks to cancel all differences linked to sex, is behind the supposed attempt to abolish competition segregated by sex. The evidence that these differences exist, and that it is impossible to completely eliminate them by means of pharmacological, hormonal or surgical treatments, prevails in the face of the delusional claim that each one is what they think they are, male or female, being able to be something else only as long as they feel that way.
The inherited nature, which includes the biological sex determined in our genetics by thousands of genes and is not modifiable, is constitutive of our personal being, of our way of existing, and includes strengths and limitations that do not imply any disadvantage in terms of our dignity, which is characteristic of the human person.
In sport, as in other fields, the competition must take place in situations that provide the highest level of similarity of opportunities possible. Thus, Paralympic athletes do not compete with athletes without any disability, and even among the Paralympians themselves, categories are established that seek to equate the level of ability to provide the greatest similarity of opportunities possible.
It has been the protest of women that has highlighted the discrimination involved in admitting in the female category those who compete with masculine characteristics against women, showing in a manifest superiority. In this case, they observe how a biological male, Lia Thomas, a swimmer with male genitalia, who shows in the female locker room, claims to feel like a woman and has been legally recognized as such.
The most worrying thing about the case, in our opinion, is not the unfair disadvantage resulting from the discriminatory treatment applied to female athletes, but rather that it takes so long to convince the supporters of this discrimination of something obvious: The received nature, which configures us as unique individuals of the human species, and which includes our biological sex, is much more than a feeling subject to changing interpretations, which far from making us equal, promotes discrimination such as the one at hand, which unfortunately it’s not the only one.
Julio Tudela and Cristina Castillo
Bioethics Observatory – Institute of Life Sciences
Catholic University of Valencia